Sunday, December 30, 2012

La Bella Figura : Part 1

“Being Italian is a full time job.  We never forget who we are.” Severgnini from La Bella Figura.

Recently Nick and I watched a Canadian news special about the sinking of the Costa Concordia and particularly about the actions of the captain Francesco Schettino.  The Canadian reporter was very critical of Schettino when he arrived at the first of the hearings.  Why was he critical?  Because he was wearing an exquisitely tailored suit, silk shirt, expensive leather shoes, and he had not a single hair out of place.  He was tanned and smiling for the cameras.  I commented on this to my husband.

“Well, of course he dressed like that.  It’s la bella figura!”  Nick nodded his agreement.  A strict translation of la bella figura is “a beautiful figure”.  A more useful translation would be “to make a good impression”.  While we in North America understand the concept of making a good impression, and many people would consider it important, it is not embedded in our cultures here the way it is in Italy.  The Canadian news reporter assumed (as many Canadians would) that his appearance and behaviour indicated a lack of humility or feeling of responsibility for his actions.  This is completely wrong.  His appearance and way of entering the courtroom would be expected in Italy.  It would be completely shameful if he hadn’t tried to make that impression.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I think his behaviour as captain was appalling and he should face a trial, but these comments by the Canadian journalist show a real lack of understanding of the Italian culture and psyche. 

Just by happenstance, a few days later I turned on my favourite Italian cooking show that is broadcast in Canada.  The Two Greedy Italians are two rather plump, very funny Italian gentlemen who travel the length of Italy to find some of the best traditional Italian food and to explain how it is related to Italian culture.  In this particular episode they visited a nonna living in Tuscany who talked about how la bella figura is part and parcel of how she gathers her food and how she feeds her family.  Hmmm.  Perhaps there was more to this bella figura thing than I realized. 

To make myself better informed on this topic, I started by reading Beppe Severgnini’s book La Bella Figura:  A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.  I glimpsed my first explanation of the need to make a good impression in his words about the airport in Milano: “Malpensa encapsulates the nation.  Only a na├»ve observer would mistake this for confusion.  Actually it’s performance art.  It is improvisation by gifted actors.  No one believes for one second that he or she is an extra.  Everyone’s a star no matter how modest the part.”  Hmmm.  Surely there is more to la bella figura than this seemingly egocentric view of life?  I began to ask my Italian friends and expats who live in Italy this question: What does la bella figura mean in your life?  I got these answers:

·      “I'm an American who has been living in Milan for about 18 months. I first interpreted the idea of bella figura to mean that people dressed their best to make a good impression on others, and I further interpreted it to mean that I (and my kids) would be judged harshly for not keeping up with trends or designer labels. I have no interest in those things, and I can't afford them in any case, so I figured I was doomed to disdain. Now I interpret it more generously. I take it to mean that each of us has a duty to be our best selves. For some that will lend itself to ostentatious shows of fabulousness, but for most of us people (Italian and otherwise) it will just mean "putting in the effort" to make the best of what you have, be it in terms of how you dress, how you cook and eat, or the energy and kindness you extend to others.” Expats in Italy
·      “…back in '70s my Uncle Louis, who traveled to Italy often, pointed out that in Italy and only in Italy, you can spend 10 thousand lire at a cheap trattoria or 40 thousand lire at an expensive restaurant and you get the same meal. From the poorest to the richest, they want to make a good impression with their food.” Expats in Italy
·      In Italy, when we say "bella figura" we are likely to refer to our behavior, before our looks. "Fai una bella figura" when you have just done something honest, useful and nice to the others. Or especially, if you are polite.  Banally, years ago we went to a restaurant in Rome, and the final bill was missing desserts and coffees. We could have shut up about it, but we felt it was fair to call the waiter and tell him. He was very surprised and admitted that such a thing would rarely happen. So, that moment we were making a veeery bella figura of ourselves and (to his eyes) of people from north Italy.  Bella figura is also showing you have a beautiful house, you can set a table in an elegant way, or cook in an extraordinary way.”  Anita and Irene Bozzetto
·      “…in my opinion the bella figura comes a lot into play also because we are a small town [Cianciana] and we all know each other and so a lot of people try to impress each other. I come from a big city so I don't have that kind of mentality. Plus it's a very outdoor lifestyle and we are strutting our stuff all over town and so they like to make a big show. Of course, we are individualistic and like to make a good impression, but in my opinion this is a good thing (individualism instead of collective) because it values the person - see the way the sick, elderly etc are treated around town.  Anyway, style is in the Italian DNA - fashion, art, cars, etc . God gives different people and nations different gifts so that they get together and make the world a better place for all.” Joe Guida
·      “I not only grew up in an Italian family but spent almost all the summers of my youth in Italy. I embrace the ideal of la bella figura, and although some people may interpret this term negatively, I see it as an aspiration of being your best self. I take pride in my appearance, for me, not for anyone else. I don't think you have to spend lots of, or any, money to embrace this notion.  I strive to always be gracious to others and bring hostess gifts, etc.” Expats in Italy

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

We Have Pictures!!!!

We have pictures!  Scott, owner of Access Sicily Property, who is doing all the reno work for us and has been and continues to be wonderful through this process, has sent pictures and an update.

The bedroom wall that had been half taken down by the previous owner has been returned to it's pristine state:



The asbestos roof on the storage room on the top terrazza in now off and replaced and two 1000 litre water tanks have been installed.

Old storage room asbestos roof

More of the old roof

Old water tank

Beautiful new non-asbestos roof

Two new much larger water tanks

One of the discoveries as Scott worked was that the terrazza off the kitchen was leaking to the room below in the winter.  So he pulled up the tile floor of the terrazza, fixed the leak and replaced the floor and just needs to be tiled.

New floor on the lower terrazza
The kitchen has been pulled back to the wall and the structure for the new counter has been made.  The new wooden countertop is being made as I am typing this.  The bathroom off the kitchen has a new sink and taps and cistern for the toilet.

The kitchen when we bought our new home

The new kitchen in the process

Bathroom off the kitchen

But the thing I am most excited about in the kitchen is the wood stove.  The beautiful old tile has been carefully removed and the stove is being repaired.

The old wood stove as we bought it 

Tiles removed
Wood stove skeleton

Finally, our "en suite" (rather a grand expression for the bathroom close to our bedroom).  The electric hot water heater was directly over the tub with wires hanging down.  The new heater has been moved outside the bathroom and the electrical and plumbing has been moved.  

New hot water heater

Bathroom without the hazardous hot water tank
Thank you Scott!  

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Primer to Driving in Sicily: The Wrap-Up

This is my final post about driving in Sicily.  I thought I would end with some of the pictures about driving that I hadn't yet posted.

But before you go on to the pictures, I have to tell you about the blog post Blindness and Memory Loss While Driving on A Canadian in Italy by Eloradaphne.  This is the quintessential 'driving in Italy' story.  I encourage you to read it.

And on to the pictures... 
This is the road to Capizzi, the tiny mountain village from which my husband's family originated.  If you could drive as the crow flies it would take about 20-30 minutes from the coast.  However, this road is so full of switchbacks that it takes 2 hours.

We stayed with a friend in Piazza Armerina in 2010.  Every evening this car was parked in this spot.  We never got to see the right side of the car so I can't say if it is scratched up or not - I suspect it must be.  I was just so impressed that someone could park that close to a wall!

I loved this little truck.  We saw it in Cefalu' on one of the many narrow back streets.  I don't know how the vegie vendor could drive without losing the vegetables off the top!

I wrote earlier about the Ferrari night in Cianciana.  This is such a great example of la bella figura or putting on the best face.  There were about 20 or so Ferraris in Cianciana that night, all from Ribera, a nearby town.  In the small town in which we live in Canada, I am sure there aren't 20 Ferraris, 10 Ferraris - in fact I have never seen even one Ferrari!  The unemployment rate in British Columbia is about 7% whereas the unemployment rate in Sicily is 25%, the highest in Italy.  Logically, you would think that British Columbians would have more disposable income to buy race cars than Sicilians.  I would guess that la bella figura plays a good part in the number of expensive sport cars that can be found in Ribera.

I included these two pictures of the main street in Cianciana.  This is Salita Regina Elena.  The top picture is in the mid-afternoon when most people are at home resting, sleeping, or watching television.  The second picture is at night when people come out - at least in the summertime - and do the passagiata, visiting with all their friends and neighbours, sharing wine, beer, coffee, or a meal.  Cianciana is a lively place to be in the summer at night!

This is Sant'Angelo Muxaro - an even smaller town than Cianciana.  As you can see, Sant'Angelo Muxaro hangs on the edge of a cliff.  Amazing that the buildings can cling there without sliding down the side of the cliff!  Believe it or not, there is a road going up that cliff to the lovely, friendly little town at the top.

 One thing I didn't mention when I talked about the autostrada is the off ramps.  In North America, off and on ramps are usually long, giving drivers lots of room to merge.  In Italy on the autostrade, off and on ramps are very short.  To compensate for that, the name of the off ramp and large arrows are painted onto the highway so you are given good warning ahead of time.  That is, if you realize what the names and arrows are telling you.

Sicily is full of mountains which means lots and lots of tunnels.  I like the tunnels for a couple of reasons: one, they are interesting and plentiful, and two, they are good places to pass slower cars in front of you.  The first time you drive through these tunnels you will understand the reason for the law insisting drivers turn on their lights on the autostrade. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

A Primer to Driving in Sicily: Driving in a Small Town

Would you drive here?
Driving in Sicily's small towns and villages requires a new skill unto itself.  Would you want to drive up this road?   I wouldn't.  But people do and I have done out of necessity.  In fact, the street on which our new house lives is about this wide and the road leading to our street has an incline similar to this one.  I think I have mentioned already that turning onto our street means leaving half my tires on the road.  

So, let's begin.  I have mentioned that a GPS is essential for driving in Sicily.  That is absolutely true - to a point.  Once you are in the small town with twisty narrow roads that are often one way (not that a one way street concerns many Sicilians!) your location finding needs to become creative.  This is where a map comes in handy.  I can't speak for other small towns, but I know that Cianciana has street maps that they hand out generously!  Where do you find them?  From the realtor (My House), from the library, the museum, and most people who rent out apartments to sun seeking foreigners.  You could also print out a map from Google Earth or Google Maps before you leave.  Driving in a small Sicilian town you will find that this is where those meditation classes I mentioned in the first driving post will come in handy.  You need to be prepared for the following:

  1. You will make mistakes.
  2. People will honk at you and make rude gestures.
  3. You will get lost. 
  4. Parking is almost impossible to find unless you come across a piazza.
  5. There will be swearing.
  6. In a small town, three stopped cars makes a traffic jam and there will be honking.
  7. Drivers in front of you will stop at random to discuss the latest football game, the weather, their families, or whatever with someone they see walking on the road.
  8. Your car will probably get scratched or, like me, you will knock off your side mirror - maybe both.
  9. You will turn a corner and see something amazing that you never expected.
If you know and fully accept that these things will happen, it will make your small town driving a more enjoyable adventure.

My Personal Examples of Some of the List Above

Number One and Five
My mistake?  I drove over a nail and the tire exploded.  There was swearing.

Number Two and Six and Seven

This is in Cianciana - I heard so much honking that I went out onto our balcony
and snapped a shot of the three car traffic jam!  The driver in the white van was chatting with all the kids as they walked by.  In Cianciana, everyone knows everyone.

Number Three

This is the Turkish Steps or Scala dei Turchi.  You will find this in any tourist book of Sicily.  The cliffs are spectacular.  On our trip to Sicily in 2010 we tried to find this beach several times.  Do you think we could find it?  Finally, in 2012 we managed to make it to Scala dei Turchi.  BTW, the man in the foreground wearing the knee length shorts is my husband, Nick.  Those shorts scream "STRANIERO - FOREIGNER!!!"  The Speedo is ubiquitous in Sicily.  But that is another post.

Number Four

This was taken in Piazza Armerina which really doesn't qualify as a small town.  The parking in this piazza wasn't free but 100 metres from here was the piazza in front of the duomo - cathedral where we parked because the parking was free.

Number Nine

This was my amazing and really unexpect thing: We visited Capizzi, the hometown of my husband's family.  We were there on a Sunday and everywhere we went we seemed to run into this procession.  The patron saint of Capizzi is Saint Giacomo.  They were solemnly and respectfully carrying their relic of Saint Giacomo from church to church.  I must admit that I was quite startled to hear that the relic was Saint Giacomo's finger which was encased in a golden hand on a long pole.  If you look closely at the picture, you will see the man behind the priest (in red) is carrying the pole and the golden hand is above him.

This man was walking his horse down the middle of the road as we approached Polizzi Generosa.

If you arrive in town on market day park the car and count yourself lucky.  You will find your way blocked by trucks laden with fruit and vegies, refrigerated stands with meats and cheeses that I had never seen in Canada (goat meat???), tables of ten euro shoes that the venders swear were made in Italy, tables of clothing, household goods, purses, sketchy-looking electronics, jewelry, and just about anything else you can think of.

Sometimes the market is just on the back of a truck driving up and down the streets and stopping as soon as there is a whiff of a customer.  BTW, I am the rather large lady with the appalling cargo shorts. (Why oh why did I ever think those were a good idea???)

Monday, December 03, 2012

A Primer on Driving in Sicily: Traffic Signs

Traffic Signs

You may have read my previous post about the "Windsock Warning" sign.  Italian traffic signs can be confusing.  If you are from North America like I am, heads up - our signs are different.  That is, with the exception of the "Stop" sign which actually says "Stop" instead of, oh, I don't know, 'arrestare', 'smettere', 'bloccare', 'fermarsi', 'cessare', anything in Italian.  So, knowing this, you may want to check out Italian traffic signs and their meanings. This link to the Wikipedia page explains them all pretty clearly.  I have to say that, next to the windsock warning sign, my favourite is the exploding car sign.

When I first started driving in Sicily, I followed all the road signs and rules of the road.  That lead to a great deal of honking and rude hand gestures on the part of the drivers with whom I was sharing the road.  The hand signal I saw most often involved slapping the left hand on the inside of the right elbow and the right forearm coming up with the hand clenched into a fist.  So, I started watching.  I discovered that, according to what I was seeing, to Sicilian drivers, traffic signs are just suggestions.

On the right next to the bush are two no parking signs.  Notice the five parked cars.

This is a one way road - notice the blue and white arrowed signs.  Also notice the car pointed down the up-only street AND parked on the sidewalk.

Sometimes the signs are hidden and easily missed.  I really think the Sicilian department of highways likes to mess with our minds.

"Let's just hide this one in the bushes - they'll never see it there!"

In relation to the picture above, speed limit signs also seem to be suggestions.

80 km/h?  Yeah, right.
On the autostrada away from the cities where the the traffic is more spread out, the speed limit becomes less and less a rule to be followed - a maximum speed sign indicating 80 km/h would see cars speeding by at a minimum of 120 km/h.  Minimum.  As in most people are going faster.  At one point on our first trip to Sicily I was keeping up with the traffic on the autostrada to Cefalu'.  I glanced down at my speedometre and I was doing 160 in a 90 zone without even realizing it.  I almost pooped my pants!  I had never driven that fast in my life.

"Oh Crap!  How fast am I going???"
Just another note on speed.  Once you are off the autostrada, in terms of speed, all bets are off.  Sometimes you will see someone driving a little three-wheeled, one person truck that seems to be powered by a hamster on a wheel and will be driving half the speed limit.

I think the hamster sits right above the front wheel!

Sometimes you will have someone in an ordinary little Fiat who will be speeding around 30 km/h corners at 80 or 90.  And then sometimes you will see a car that you expect to be going fast but the driver is moving at the pace of a snail!  Two and a half years ago, in Calabria (same rules apply there), we pulled onto a regional highway behind a Maserati - shiny black, obviously well taken care of.  We fully expected the driver to leave us in his dust.  Instead he was doing about 60 in a 90 zone.  It was one lane each way, constant curves and no way to pass.   So we drove for about 2 hours behind this beautiful Maserati until he finally pulled off.  Two off-ramps later we pulled off and found the side road we were looking for.  We drove for about 20 minutes and who did we see in front of us?  The shiny black Maserati and driving even more slowly!  ARGGHH!  Another 15 minutes behind the Maserati.
So what did I learn?  Now I just drive at the speed that is comfortable for me - no more 160 km/h!

There are some signs that you might chuckle at but you really need to pay attention to.  We came across this sign just outside of Agira.

We had a little giggle about a cow warning sign.  We drove around the corner and this is what we saw.

When the cattle had passed us and we continued on a couple of kilometres down the road and we were in the middle of....

One night we were leaving Capizzi, the hometown of Nick's family.  It was dark and we came around a corner to see...

Horses, cows and a couple of goats all on their own.  I honked and they just looked at me.  I had to weave my way through them before we could continue on our drive back to Nick's cousins' house where we were staying.